Thursday, July 2, 2020

An open letter to Finance Minister – Thapelo Matsheka as you present your maiden budget

Dear Mr Finance Minister – Thapelo Matsheka. Welcome to the exciting world of public finance that you have just taken charge of in the last few months. I have covered this space as a beat reporter for just over a decade now, so I am taking the liberty to give a glimpse of this sector as I see it.

First, my biases: I am pro the poor. Because I know poverty. I have lived it and I have lived with the poor. So, I will be speaking with authority on this one. For instance, I know that to be poor means to live with toothache and then having to pull your own teeth out to relieve the pain because your local clinic doesn’t have a dentist. To be poor is to live without necessities such as sanitary pads – and for some young girls this means having to miss a period or two at school when menstruating. To be poor, Mr Finance Minister also means having no space for dreams and aspirations because survival is paramount. (There is no time to think and analyse information, to decide whether certain information circulated in public spaces is political propaganda, populist stunt or gospel truth).

Those that are poor are living with feelings of worthlessness, anger and frustration due to lack of jobs, land and business opportunities. For these group, the internet is not even enough due to its cost and speed for them to vent these feelings.

All these Mr Finance Minister are experiences of poor Batswana – young and old. All these, Mr Finance Minister are realities of life that more than half of the population is now facing. All these makes me bias towards this crop of people and their rights. The right to a dignified life as human beings and citizens of this country.

My other bias Mr Finance Minister is towards Batswana as a whole. Before I even tell you why or how I became biased towards the people of this country let me take you down the memory lane to a time not too far from now.

In early 2019, whilst you were fighting for policy changes at the tourism sector as chairman of HATAB another fight erupted at the government enclave. It was between chief spies – or rather the then chief spy and the now chief spy.

To avoid appearing as if I am speaking in tongues, let me in short words remind you of an incident that happened in early 2019 involving the former Director General of the Directorate of the Intelligence Services – DIS, Isaac Kgosi and his successor – Peter Magosi. The incident made Kgosi to popularise the word “TOPPLING” in Botswana. This was after his famous arrest at the Sir Seretse Khama International Airport – to date he has not been charged for that arrest.

At the time Kgosi threatened that he will “topple” the government for what he perceived to be ill-treatment by his former employer – the Botswana government. To date no one knows what General Kgosi meant by “toppling”.

While Kgosi got credit for popularising the word “topple”, there is credit due to you as the country’s new brief case man. Infact I challenge you to also “topple” something that gives me and the poor sleepless nights. Mr Finance Minister as I said above, I am biased towards the rights of the poor. So I challenge you to topple income inequality in this country. Mind you, Mr Finance Minister you take over that office at a time when the nation has been yearning for someone who will not just warm its chairs but also who can rise above the local to communicate a grand vision, inspire Batswana, while at the same time energising common action. Unlike your predecessor – Kenneth Matambo who at some point allowed his political master to run the show on his behalf, Mr Finance Minister you should be imaginative enough to allow the nation to see that there are benefits to success and adversity, to boom and bust alike.

The state of the nation as it is right now is such that we have over 20 percent unemployment rate, cash stripped State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs), unproductive public service and lack of laws that speaks to economic empowerment of the natives. Big public infrastructures such as Marina, and Nyangabwe Hospitals and even new ones like Letsholathebe in Maun are in bad state.

From where I stand, all these are a result of the failure to direct the national economic ship by your predecessor– a man whose sole responsibility was to carry the national purse. It was and still is the responsibility of the Finance minister (a tag that you now carry) to ensure that cabinet act in a collective and co-ordinated manner in the face of a global political, economic and financial crisis.

Dear Mr Finance Minister I surely do not need to remind you that for so many years now, during the first week of February the poor have been forced to switch-on their television sets and watch a man carrying a brief-case into the parliament building. He would then read figures after figures before his fellow MPs chipped in with the usual rhetoric comments in the weeks to follow. Shortly thereafter it’s back to the “abnormal” life. The poor retrace their steps to eating crumb of bread whilst the rich grow their bellies bigger. This is not a bitter talk as some usually accuse me to be. It a great cause of concern. In fact, the basic cause for my concern over the past decade has not been Matambo or your political party’s inability to become imaginative. The real cause of my concern is the growing gap between the poor and the rich in this country. Inequality – the number one enemy not just for Botswana but the world at large is stark. The monster is multi-faceted and reinforcing because of our lack of tact towards fighting it. We seem to have left it to the nature to take its cause. As data from Stats Botswana would show, even in the past year real earnings for citizens of this country remained below their pre-financial crisis peak.

As we noted in this space before, the bitter pill that we all need to swallow is that to truly unleash our country’s potential, we need to tackle the concentration of ownership, control and market dominance by foreigners in the domestic economy. Until recently, there were so many foreign owned shops that have closed their doors to good quality products just because they were produced locally.

It’s my sincere submission to you Mr Finance Minister that a people centred budget would certainly “topple” this problem. It is probably late to make such a call, but I still do, call on you Mr Finance Minister to surprise this nation and present a budget that is inclusive. The nation needs a budget that aspires to meet the needs of all of the citizens, not just those who are at the high earning notch but also for those who do not have regular income and those in the Small and Medium Entrepreneurship sector (SMEs).

One last thing Mr Finance Minister, and this is just a by the way. A majority of Batswana have long lost interest in the national budget speech. In the past few years, our observation is that they neither follow the speech nor bother to later read it to determine what is in it for them. This should be a source of concern to you as the new broom at Finance Ministry. Many citizens of this country – rural and urban dwellers alike, feel that their voices do not matter anymore. It is therefore up to you to prove that all voices ultimately matter – and one way doing that is drawing up an ALL-inclusive national budget. The kind that can speak to the jobless, landless and those who need finance to set up businesses. At the end, the #Bottomline is that we must “topple” income inequality and the only way to go about it is through an inclusive national budget. I wish you all the best in your new role Mr Finance Minister.

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Sunday Standard June 28 – 4 July

Digital copy of Sunday Standard issue of June 28 - 4 July, 2020.